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Still cruel but no longer competent, the Tories are in moral freefall

The government is causing its own descent into the abyss. How low can Sunak and his cronies stoop?

Rishi Sunak is presiding over a Tory Party that has descended into an abyss of its own making. Photo: Justin Tallis/WPA Pool/Getty

A  year from now, when Rishi Sunak is finalising his $1bn multi-year contract with a Californian tech venture capital fund (or nearest offer), I hope that he and everyone else still recall the Frank Hester scandal and reflect upon its grim significance.

Last week, the Guardian disclosed that Hester, a software tycoon and the Conservative Party’s biggest donor, had said that Diane Abbott MP made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”. What followed was a grotesque fiesta of gaslighting, as a series of senior Tories clucked disapprovingly about these remarks but refused to call them racist or misogynistic. 

Most extraordinary was the hitherto-sane Mel Stride sprinting headlong into the brick wall of reality. According to the work and pensions secretary, “the critical point here is I don’t think what [Hester] was saying was a gender-based or a race-based comment, but it was clearly inappropriate”. If saying that you “want to hate all black women” is not gender-based or race-based, then what is?

After Kwasi Kwarteng, the former chancellor, and Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary, said that the language was obviously racist, No 10 was compelled to do the same. But the time it had taken Big Rishi and his Inner Party comrades to concede that 2+2 might, after all, add up to 4, was woefully instructive. 

Truth to tell, the stench of prejudice, venality and double standards scorches the nostrils. The Conservative Party has already accepted £10m from Hester, and, as Tortoise’s Cat Neilan revealed last Thursday, is set to trouser a further £5m. 

His company, The Phoenix Partnership, has reportedly won government contracts worth £400m. In 2015, he was awarded an OBE. And why did Michael Gove, unveiling his new definition of “extremism” last week, single out Hester for “Christian forgiveness”? 

But the story is not just intrinsically deplorable. It symbolises something much broader and deeper; perhaps of huge significance for the future contours of British political life.

Having written about the Conservatives for more than 30 years, I now see a movement in moral freefall. The party has always excited strong emotions in its opponents: as long ago as 1948, Nye Bevan called the Tories “lower than vermin”. Margaret Thatcher was a deeply divisive figure. David Cameron’s government is still denounced for austerity and the 2016 referendum.

And let us not pretend that there is anything new about “Tory sleaze” – the backdrop to the Nolan Committee’s first report in 1995 on standards in public life.

What has changed is that the party now seems to have lost its ethical and intellectual moorings entirely. Conservatism used to have cerebral heft: Friedrich Hayek, Shirley Robin Letwin, Michael Oakeshott, TE Utley, Roger Scruton. Who are their counterparts in 2024?

Where once there was a coherent body of Tory ideas, now there is only gormless populism and nativism. For decades after its delivery in 1968, Enoch Powell’s appalling “rivers of blood” speech did serve a purpose, in that it acted as a crash barrier beyond which mainstream politicians strayed at their peril.

Now it is all in a day’s work for the prime minister to fixate on small boats, on sending refugees to Rwanda, and on waging cheap culture wars in desperate pursuit of votes. The question is not why Suella Braverman was finally sacked as home secretary in November but why Sunak was for so long content for her to call migration “an existential challenge”; to claim (falsely) that grooming gangs are “almost all British-Pakistani”; to rage against “the invasion on our southern coast”.

Likewise: the question is not why Lee Anderson had the Conservative whip removed (it was about time) or why he defected to Reform UK. What the PM has yet to explain is why such a man – a GB News shock jock who is a parliamentarian in his spare time – was ever deputy chair of the Conservative Party. 

It is difficult to pinpoint when, precisely, the fall of the Tory empire became irreversible. But I think partygate was an important staging post on the collective journey towards perdition. 

Bad enough that Boris Johnson’s No 10 held the dubious distinction of being the address associated with most pandemic fines. Even worse was the ill-concealed bafflement of Johnson and co that they should be held to the same standards as the rest of us.

He led not a government but a gang: a mob of tawdry oligarchs who truly believed they were special and different. By then, the Tories had reached the point identified by Ece Temelkuran in How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship (2019) where those in power “remove the shame” and “morality is exiled from public life”. 

The final fig leaf was the ability to govern effectively, which had long been the Tory Party’s core claim to office. “Cruel but competent” was how the veteran Conservative strategist Maurice Saatchi framed it.

The pandemonium of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit could scarcely be described as efficient; Johnson was totally out of his depth during the pandemic, compounding his failure by insisting that every aspect of the government’s response was somehow “world-beating”. And then, in a mere 49 days as PM, Liz Truss managed to trash what was left of her party’s most precious asset: its economic credibility.

So what’s left? A hollowed-out movement of second- and third-raters, confusing their abiding sense of entitlement with the long-departed capacity to govern. They have reached the stage where no suggestion is off limits: Penny Mordaunt should be PM, or perhaps Cameron from the Lords, or maybe Johnson, brought back in some hypothetical by-election, or…

This barely deserves to be called “plotting”. These are the ravings of panic and delusion, the death rattle of a once-great movement. It is over, and it’s been over for quite a while. 

The party’s descent into an abyss of its own making continues. The only remaining variable is quite how low it can go.

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